In which Dodger has more than a word with Feng
Over the week-long journey to Sunnyvale, the site of the professor’s next delivery, every crewmember had graciously conceded, at one point or another, to a bit of an interview with Dodger. A small tête-à-tête to go over his plans for the Sleipnir’s defense. Just a few moments of discussion about the way things used to be and the way things were going to be, now that he was head of security.
Every crew member, that was, except for Feng.
It wasn’t that Dodger hadn’t tried for an audience with the cook. He tried to catch Feng several times, but the man was as elusive as smoke and twice as hard to pin down. When Dodger questioned the professor about the man’s seclusion, the professor had little to say on the matter.
“Feng is my oldest comrade,” the man said. And that was that.
From those few words, Dodger got the impression that Feng was not just the professor’s oldest acquaintance by timeline, but also by age. Dodger was forced to conclude that what the doc meant was that with such age comes respect, and that Dodger should respect the elderly man’s wish to be left alone.
But then again, the man was right there.
Dodger leapt from his mattress and flung the door wide.
“I’m glad you’re …” he started, but stopped when he realized it wasn’t a sir at his door.
It was a lady. A lady dressed in the manner of a man, but a lady nonetheless.
“Miss Lelanea?” Dodger asked.
Lelanea’s eyes wandered down the front of Dodger’s half-dressed person, her gaze lingering on the opened shirt before Dodger could snatch it closed.
“Don’t be ashamed,” she said. “I hear tell that some women find scars attractive.”
“Do you?” Dodger asked. “Find them attractive, I mean.”
Lelanea shrugged. “I don’t care much for a man’s appearance. It’s what’s in his heart and his head that attracts me. Not what’s inside his shirt.” She paused to flick her glance south, then back up to meet his eyes again. “Or his pants.”
Dodger took the subtle hint and, not so subtly, buttoned his fly. “Sorry about that, I was dressing when you knocked. If I had known it was you, I would’ve dressed properly. Or maybe you would’ve preferred not at all?” Dodger could have chewed his disobedient tongue right off. He didn’t know why he added that last bit. What a thing to say to woman! There was just something about her that made him lose control of his thoughts, and his mouth.
Lelanea’s tinkling laughter filled the car. “Don’t flatter yourself. I didn’t come by to gawk at you.”
“Are you certain?” Dodger asked, leaning on the doorframe to provide maximum gawkability. “Because I could fit you into my gawking schedule if you like.”
“I’ll pass, thanks. But speaking of schedules, I came by to return this to you.” She pushed a worn piece of paper at him. “I was going to put it in the bin where it belongs, but I decided to help you out with it instead. As you can see, I’ve made some changes to your roster. I hope you don’t mind.”
Dodger looked down at the security schedule. It was a mass of red, furious scribbles over every name but his. “Thanks so much. It’s good to see the team pulling together for a common cause.”
“It isn’t our fault you can’t manage your work by yourself in the same way Washington could. But we all can’t be perfect, can we?”
Dodger tried to rouse a comeback, but all that came out was a yawn.
“What now?” Lelanea asked. “Am I boring you?”
“No,” Dodger said. “I’m sorry. I just … I haven’t slept well.”
All at once, Lelanea’s harsh attitude melted into a look of real concern. “Oh yes, I’m sorry about that. Nightmares will do that to a person.”
“Night what?” Dodger asked before he realized what she’d said. “I’m not having nightmares. I’m just having a hard time adjusting to sleeping on the train; that’s all.”
“Of course. That explains everything. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to get to. Work of my own.”
With that, the woman flounced off toward the next quarters cab, just as another form passed her, headed in the opposite direction. Distracted by the sway of Lelanea’s hips, Dodger almost didn’t catch the sight of the elderly cook setting a silver tray outside the door. He poked his head into the hallway and caught sight of the cook shuffling away toward the meeting car. For a moment, he almost let the man leave, his attention snatched by the delicious smell rising from the silver domed tray parked just outside his door. Yet as hungry as Dodger was, his hunger to speak with the Chinaman was more overpowering.
“Sir?” Dodger called out just as Feng reached the door at the opposite end of the car.
The elderly man paused in the doorway between cars. Paused and did nothing else. He neither looked over his shoulder, nor turned about. All at once, Dodger felt as though he had interrupted something very important. Like stopping the hands on the station master’s watch.
“Can I have a word with you?” Dodger asked, and just a word was all he expected.
Feng turned at the sound of Dodger’s question, and began to make his way back down the length of the car. His pace, a brisk shuffle only a moment ago, was now maddeningly slow. He crept along, his aged head bobbing up and down, up and down, with each step. Dodger felt like an ass for disturbing the old man’s routines.
“If you’re busy, I can talk to you later,” Dodger said.
“Nonsense,” Feng said. “If I can’t spare a moment for our new chief of security, then what good are moments?”
Dodger started. This wasn’t what he expected. Feng’s English was flawless, his accent almost non-existent.
“What gives?” he asked. “I thought you didn’t speak English.”
“I never said that,” the man said. “I believe that was a conclusion drawn and presented by our mutual friend of the eternal unlife.” There was a certain incongruity to hearing such a non-ethnic voice issue from the lips of a man who was, for lack of a better word, so very Oriental. The effect was unnerving, to say the least.
“My apologies. I didn’t mean to … it’s just that …” Dodger didn’t ask what was on his mind, worried he would offend the man further.
“Why this accent? Or rather, why no accent?” As if reading Dodger’s mind, Feng tilted his head to one side and squinted his eyes almost closed as he said, “This work-ah bettah for Mistah Dodger?”
And no, it wasn’t better. The over-the-top Chinaman accent was both insulting and uncomfortable. “No, I reckon not. I feel like a fool for even thinking it somehow would.”
The older man chuckled. “No worries, friend. I’m only teasing you. Let’s just say I had a very effective English teacher.”
“In fact, any influence on my accent now is the result of too many years spent in Hieronymus’s company.”
“And how many years would that be?”
“Far too many to admit to, I’m afraid.”
Dodger yawned, huge and wide. “Sorry. I’ve not been sleeping well.”
“Nightmares?” The ancient Oriental lifted a single brow and eyed him.
“No.” Dodger hated lying to these good folks, but the last thing he wanted was for them to start fawning over him just because he had a few bad dreams. “I think it’s the mattress. I’ve been sleeping on a cot so long, I forgot what it was like to have a featherbed.”
“It’s the mattress. Of course.” But something in the old man’s voice suggested he knew better.
Dodger ignored the feeling that the crew had discussed this without him, and returned to his questioning. “Did you know the doc before he moved here?”
“I knew him long before he sought these shores.”
“You came with him?”
“No. I joined him after he came here. To join the international melting pot of your country.”
“The what?” Dodger had heard America called many things, but that was a new one to him.
“Nothing. Never mind. In my advancing years, it’s hard for me to remember if something has or hasn’t happened yet.” Feng continued to grin, as if what he said made the least bit of sense.
“Would you like to come inside and have a seat?”
“No. I am needed elsewhere, so I only have a moment to spare, I’m afraid.”
“I don’t want to keep you.”
“Not at all. How can I help you?”
“I know the kitchen cab is your personal quarters and all, but if you would allow me, I’d like a tour. So I can get the specs and such, in case a problem ever arises.”
“I can assure you, friend, that should a problem arise on the Sleipnir, my car would be the last place it would happen.”
“Forgive me for saying as much, sir, but I’ve often found that the last place a man expects something to happen is usually the first place it does.”
Feng’s eyes seemed to brighten at this. “You’re very wise for your age. Such wisdom is refreshing.”
“Well, thank you, sir, but wisdom has nothing to do with it. It’s just experience, plain and simple.”
“So is wisdom.”
“What is wisdom?”
“Experience, plain and simple.”
“Ah,” Dodger said. “I see.” Though he didn’t. Not really.
Feng bowed low, once, to show his acquiescence. “I will be more than glad to allow you a walkthrough of my quarters. When you have time, of course.”
“Of course. I have to drop off a package for the doc, so let’s say … this afternoon?”
“Probably not.” The Chinaman smiled again, but didn’t elaborate.
Dodger had no idea how to counter that. “Another time, then.”
“That will be fine. If that’s settled then, will you excuse me?”
“Wait. Before you go, I wanted to thank you and compliment you on your cooking.”
“It’s my pleasure. Cooking is my greatest love in life.”
“I’m afraid the pleasure has been all mine in this case.” Dodger patted his belly. “Any more pleasure and I’m gonna need to make a new hole in my belt. Your skills are remarkable, and your talent for guessing a man’s taste in food is uncanny.”
“Thank you, but it’s no talent at all. Consider it good guessing mixed with a little luck. Regional tastes differ very little. I find most palates are as recognizable as accents.”
“Then may I commend you on your timing? How is it you always seem to know just when someone gets hungry?”
“Ah,” Feng said as he laid a finger beside his nose and winked. “Ancient Chinese secret.”
“I see. I guess that’s the best I’m gonna get on that?”
Feng smiled on, but said nothing else on the matter.
The meeting car door opened with a snap, leaving Dodger to jump in surprise.
“Sharge?” Ched said. “What’sh thish I hear about you having it out with—oh, heya, Feng. Didn’t shee you there.”
“It’s fine,” Dodger said. “We were finished anyway. I’ll make sure and drop by sometime soon. Is that good for you?”
Feng tucked each hand into the opposite sleeve of his robe, bowed deeply to both men, said a few words of his native tongue to Dodger in farewell, then shuffled off on his way.
“What wash all that about?” Ched asked.
Dodger couldn’t be sure himself. Still reeling from the Celestial’s last words, he said, “Nothing. We were just talking about things.”
“Yeah, I can shee that. Sho what did he jusht shay in that shtrange tongue of hish? Or wash it too dirty to repeat?” Ched waggled his eyebrows to punctuate his perverted point.
“Not dirty, just … enigmatic.”
“Enigmatic ish that man’sh middle name.”
“He said I should be sure to eat all of my breakfast, because I’m not getting any lunch today.”
“I shee.” Ched crossed his arms with a nod. “Sho you pisshed off the cook too?”
“What is that supposed to …” Dodger huffed as he realized the answer to his own question. “Of course. You’ve been talking to Boon.”
“Talking? It wash more like consholing. He’sh pretty torn up about your jumping hish ash like that.”
“I didn’t jump his ash. I didn’t jump anyone’s ash! I just asked him to be more reliable.”
“That man ish the mosht reliable pershon I’ve ever met. Doubly sho now that he’sh of the pasht tensh variety.”
“I didn’t say he wasn’t reliable, past tense or otherwise. I think this place could use a little more discipline. That’s all. I just want … I just … look, it’s complicated, all right?”
Ched leaned against the hallway window, his thumbs hooked in his overalls, his attitude reminding Dodger that he had no place better to be.
“Who’s driving the train?” Dodger asked.
“That bucket of boltsh hash her well enough in hand,” Ched said. “Shtop changing the shubject and tell me why all thish need for dischipline? Wash never had me pulling guard duty. Much lessh shecurity roundsh.”
“I know Wash ran a loose goose here, but I do things differently. I need a schedule I can rely on. And for that to work, I need you—and I mean you in particular—to follow the posted roster. If you don’t want to pull security, then just say so, but don’t tell me you’ll do it and then decide you have better things to do. Y’all harped on about wanting me for the job, so let me do the damned job my way.”
Ched shifted in his stance, raising his eyebrows and blinking several times before he spoke again. “I guessh he wash right. You are in a foul mood. Musht be the nightmaresh.”
Dodger ran his hand the length of his face, a move that was threatening to become signature here as of late. He wanted to argue, but when it came down to it, they had a point. He had been right ornery these last few days.
“Can I go now?” Ched asked, then added as if in afterthought, “Shir?”
“Not you too,” Dodger whispered behind his hand.
“We should be reaching Shunnyvale in fifteen. Shir. I need to get back to the controlsh. Shir. I trusht Torque to keep the wheel from shpinning out of control, shir, but it’ll be a cold day in Hadesh before I let that mechanical nightmare brake my train. Shir.”
“For God’s sake, just go. If I hear that word again, I think I’ll scream.”
“Yesh, shir,” Ched said, with special slurred emphasis on that last, terrible word.
Dodger watched with a groan as the driver loped away through the car.
Maybe the dead men were right.
Maybe he was a bit on the touchy side as of late.
Was it just lack of sleep that had him jumpier than a jackrabbit in May? No, he couldn’t lie to himself. Those nightmares were the cause behind his lack of sleep. They troubled him to distraction. Those eerily real dreams that had been haunting him night after night since his return from Waxford. He closed his eyes as the images came back to him even now.
His mother in black.
Her speech that she needed to remarry since the man of the house was gone.
Then there was that awful question that she never seemed to answer. Not when he asked her that fateful day at the kitchen table. Not when he posed it almost a year later, as his last question before the authorities took him away from her forever.